Lake Baikal is the deepest lake in the world, the largest freshwater lake in the world thought to contain 20% of the entire freshwater reserves of the whole planet. I calculated you could fit Loch Ness into Lake Baikal 20,000 times. It is surrounded by mountains, and the weather system that forms above it determines the climate for the whole of Northern Asia, from the Urals to Japan, from the Himalayas to the Arctic.
It is also known for its exceptional beauty, its clear water, its abundant wildlife, and is a very popular holiday destination for Russians who can afford it. There is a railway that goes around the lake, a good way to view it, or you can take a cruise out onto the lake itself. From the shore you cannot see the opposite bank, it feels more like you are looking out to sea.
I didn’t have time for the full Baikal experience, I was on a tight schedule with a plane to catch, so it was all I could do to get myself to the shores of the lake. The nearest resort to Irkutsk is called Listvyanka, it is on the northern shore of the lake and the eastern bank of the Angara river. It is about an hour and a quarter’s drive from Irkutsk.
I was expecting the marshrutka to take everyone to the end of the route, but it started stopping quite early and letting people get off, and one or two people get on. Listvyanka is quite a spread-out resort and the periodic buses are the quickest way to move around. We passed a museum, some hotels, a school, until there were just a handful of people left on the bus. And then eventually we reached the end of the road.
I didn’t want to get out because it was raining. Fortunately I had my umbrella with me (of necessity, I had all my luggage with me, having taken the decision to travel light and avoid the costs and waiting associated with checking in baggage). I stood under the bus shelter for a while to see if the rain would ease off, when it didn’t. I decided I might as well explore a little.
There was a little jetty jutting out into the water from a small pebbled beach, I went and stood on it and looked out over the horizon. I dipped my hand in the water, just to say I had done so. There was an area of wooden decking with some food stalls set up, they looked half-open, unattended. A few Chinese tourists bedecked in colourful rainsheets hovered around and took pictures. One almost lost his umbrella to the lake as the coastal breeze momentarily strengthened.
One of my fellow travellers from the bus introduced himself as Aleksandr. He did not speak much English so again I deployed my basic, basic Russian. I don’t know why he was there, but I told him my story. I asked him to take my picture by the beach.
There was a larger pebble beach the other side of the decking, with several tour boats beached and waiting for passengers unlikely to come under today’s inclement weather. There was a row of covered picnic tables, each one of them damp as the rain found its way in through various cracks and alleys. There was signage, “No Swimming” one of them warned. It wasn’t really a day for swimming but I would have liked to have added the boast “swam in Lake Baikal” to my travel history.
I came up from the beach onto the road and again bumped into Aleksandr. Together we wandered into a market – a covered, indoor market. It was still early in the morning – I had arrived on the very first bus in – and the souvenir sellers were still setting up their stalls. It was mostly the same thing on each stall – wood carvings, Matrioshka dolls, fridge magnets, toy seals. Not every stall sold souvenirs. Some sold fish. But fish and souvenirs seemed to be the extent of this market’s trading ambition.
I walked to the end of the coastal part of the road, and for a little way after it turned upwards into the foothills. These were obviously people’s country houses, there were some home industry businesses making souvenirs, there was the odd guesthouse. I turned and started heading back towards the bus stop, and then beyond. At some point the rain eased off and I could put down my umbrella.
I kept looking hopefully out onto the lake, hoping to see some Baikal seals swimming in the water, or maybe basking on the beach, but they surely have many wild places around the lake to frolic, far from watching human eyes.
So instead I looked at the buildings of Listvyanka. Some were still being built. There were ones that looked like frontier saloons of the Wild West, some that looked like castles. There was one intriguing hut that offered to reveal the secret fairy traditions of Russia. And mushrooms in the shape of celebrities such as the Beatles. Tempted as I was to go and look, I walked on.
There were random sculptures. A tin man sat on a bridge, happily fishing. A sign invited me to the World Ice Swimming Championships. There was a puppet theatre. The town was a strange mix of rustic, traditional and touristy. And it was early, and it was raining, so the warnings I had read about this being a “too touristy” town to really appreciate Lake Baikal seemed surreal. I almost had the place to myself.
I decided to walk up the headland towards the museum, which was the first significant stop I remembered from the bus. Once the buildings of this part of town fell behind me, I only really had the lake to look at, and the hills above me. I started to see the real beauty of the lake. I couldn’t see the far shore, but I could see the headland on the other side of the Angara inlet as it rolled into the distance and merged with the horizon.
Eventually I reached the museum. There were a lot of tourists around here, both Chinese and European. The museum prominently displayed English (or maybe American) names as its main benefactors and the displays had plenty of English language information. I considered buying a ticket and spending an hour or two going round the museum reading about the geology, geography and ecology, but I was still tired from lack of sleep, and had already walked a fair distance from the far end of Listvyanka. I decided I would return to Irkutsk. There really was not a lot more to do in this place.
I sat in the bus stop opposite the museum and waited for my bus to come by. I knew the service was infrequent – maybe 6 or 7 buses throughout the whole day. By now it was about midday, and when a bus from another service came by, I checked the price and decided, what with my uncertainty about my return ticket actually being a return ticket, I should just take this bus instead.
It probably wasn’t a great idea, this was a more traditional marshrutka experience which meant lots of swerving and jolting around, and no opportunity to doze off. But it got me back to Irkutsk. By now it was raining there too, and I sought shelter in the bus station. Eventually I thought I needed sleep and shelter from the rain so much, I should just book a room in a hostel for a few hours, have a nap, and then get back to the airport. I had seen a hostel on my way in, so I braved the rain for a little while to go and put my plan into action. I found the hostel but I couldn’t find any reception area, there were no prices advertised anywhere and I didn’t really want the hassle of asking strangers in poor Russian how to get myself a short-term room.
So I just went back out into the rain, and walked around the city a bit more. I made my way to the Moscow Gate, and the riverside embankment – on a sunny day this would be a beautiful, pleasant walk but today it was just grey and horrible. I found my way back to Kirov Square and jumped on a bus back to the airport. At least there I would be indoors, there was somewhere to sit down, they had facilities I could use… in the end I found a bank of chairs that I could lie across and I napped for about 3 hours. I was not the only napper in the airport that day.
I woke in the early evening, still 6 hours before my flight, there wasn’t anything to eat at the airport (at least nothing stimulating my appetite) so I got a bus back into Irkutsk. I spotted a shopping mall long before it got anywhere near the city centre, and hopped off, and found myself a KFC restaurant. Perfect!
I probably then walked halfway back to the airport looking for a postbox. I had bought a postcard in Listvyanka, written it out at the airport, and now I needed to post it. This was not a historical or touristy part of town and as a result, it felt very similar to the kind of streets I walk along every day in Volgograd. I found my postbox, I found another tank too, and then I found the bus back to the airport again, for the last time.
Check-in did not start until only about 45 minutes before the flight, so it was a long wait, but it is easier on a full stomach. I faced another 4-hour flight, another morning arrival in a new city, with no accommodation to check into until 2pm. I had not seen a bed in 36 hours. I hoped I would be able to sleep on the plane…